Song of Solomon 2: 8-13
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
1 My heart is full of Christ, and longs
its glorious matter to declare!
Of him I make my loftier songs,
I cannot from his praise forbear;
my ready tongue makes haste to sing
the glories of my heavenly King.
2 Fairer than all the earth-born race,
perfect in comeliness thou art;
replenished are thy lips with grace,
and full of love thy tender heart:
God ever blest! We bow the knee,
and own all fullness dwells in thee.
3 Gird on thy thigh the Spirit’s sword,
and take to thee thy power divine;
stir up thy strength, almighty Lord,
all power and majesty are thine:
assert thy worship and renown;
O all-redeeming God, come down!
4 Come, and maintain thy righteous cause,
and let thy glorious toil succeed;
dispread the victory of thy cross,
ride on, and prosper in thy deed;
through earth triumphantly ride on,
and reign in every heart alone.
Charles Wesley (1707–1788)
Prayer of approach and confession
Gracious God we come into your presence with joy in our hearts and praise on our lips.
Before the world was you where there giving birth to creation, speaking the universe into being.
You are beyond our comprehension and yet we know your presence with us.
We are overwhelmed by the enormity of your love,
and yet our hearts long to declare the glory of you name in words and actions.
But too often we fail to do so, and we come into your presence seeking forgiveness
When we have followed the letter of the law instead of its spirt
Christ forgive us
When we have worried what others will think instead of pursuing justice
Christ forgive us
When we have been quick to judge others and failed to own our own faults
Christ forgive us
Your grace and mercy abound, and in Christ Jesus we know the assurance of our sins forgiven. Amen thanks be to God.
Reading James 1: 17-27
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbours;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honour those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved
Reading Mark 7: 1 – 23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
It seems really odd to our ears to hear any group of people being criticised for taking care to observe good hand hygiene, and to be getting it in the neck for pointing out that people really should not only wash their hands but their food as well! But there again Jesus was neither addressing a pandemic nor was he attempting to set out modern food hygiene standards. So, carry on with the hand washing etc, please.
There is a tension within this Gospel story , there is both a condemnation of the Pharisees for failing to follow the Torah and a reinterpretation or even abrogation of its teaching in the insistence that one is not defiled by what one eats but by what comes out of the mouth! Mind you I am inclined to think that Mark has taken a leap of faith (or something) in concluding that Jesus had declared all foods clean (he doesn’t actually say that). Perhaps what we have is Jesus going back to basics, what is the law for? If it is to bring us closer to God then it is its principles and direction that matter not the observance of its minutia. The question “Do we love God and our neighbour and can anyone tell”, becomes more important than whether or not we are ritually pure.
But ritual and social customs can help us to navigate not just our faith, life but life in general. It should be noted that even those churches that claim not have any truck with ritual and liturgy, invariably have their own versions by any other name – be it the number and type of hymns, the placing of the types of prayer (and the length and use of familiar phrases), the expectations of what the preacher will or will not wear. And heaven help anyone who takes the collection in the wrong place!
I remember the story of the high Anglican Church where all the servers made exaggerated step in the sanctuary area in the same place as though sponsored by the Ministry of Silly walks. They swore blind that this was how you were supposed to walk, the step essential and part of the ritual. Enquiries by the new vicar revealed that nearly 90 years earlier then then priest had a kneeler that had to be stepped over with dignity. The kneeler had gone but the step remained! I wonder what we do without thinking?
When I was young there were social conventions to be observed when someone died, like drawing the curtains, wearing a black tie etc. Markers that helped you along the path of grief. When Gran died, I went to the undertakers with my older brother, David. The undertaker asked a series of questions, all of which David seemed to think there was a right answer but he didn’t know what it was. He looked to me, I answered with absolute certainty, the undertaker looked to David for confirmation, and David said “What he said”. The only right answers were what was right for us, it’s just the way in which they were asked suggested this is a trap. It’s like passing the port, or selecting the right piece of cutlery, or saying napkins or serviettes, or wearing the correct tie. The unimportant elevated to a matter of life or death!
But ritual can be beautiful and awe inspiring, leading us into deeper relationship with the divine. The music, incense and movement of a high mass allowing us to glimpse the divine. For some the rhythm and pattern of reciting the rosary leads them deeper into prayer, freeing the mind to focus on God. The action of crossing yourself, being a spontaneous reaction to blessing or overwhelming bad news.
When Mum was in hospital before she died, one of the nuns in Chirk, where we were living, asked my Dad if he minded if the lit a candle. Not at all was his response, whatever helps you pray.
Ritual at its best can help us find ourselves and find God in the confusion and chaos of life. But of itself it does not save, it does not protect, it does not make us pure.
In the Gospel this morning there is a dispute about what it means to be pure. I have been reminded of the verses from psalm 24 (we had to learn it for choral speaking at school) “who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, or can stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart, who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity nor sworn deceitfully”.
If we were altogether in church, I might see who would put their hand up as saying, yes that’s me, I can. Like the psalm we read earlier, it seems to me this is about access to the sanctuary and perhaps even to the holy of holies. As a requirement to be disciples of Christ it seems though like a nonstarter if we are required to be pure in order to know ourselves in the presence of God. Who could hope to meet this requirement? Well like the old joke about any question asked in Sunday school, the answer to the question must be Jesus.
But we are not required to be pure, ritually or otherwise, but to be honest seekers after the truth, to want to follow Jesus and to live by the two great commands to love God and to Love our neighbour. Purity of intention perhaps? In that, we want to the right things for the right reasons.
Jesus lays into the Pharisees because they have become obsessed with ritual purity rather than the intention of the law – even to the extent of avoiding their duty to their parents, by saying well we have offered to God the money we would have spent on you. How many families of chapel goers I wondered suffered because the money they needed was instead given to the cause?
In the Epistle of James, we are reminded that our faith is manifested in the difference it makes in the way in which we live our lives. There is always a temptation, accidental or deliberate to mix up basic teaching. It is true that nothing we can do can ever earn us our salvation, we are made right with God though God’s grace in Christ alone – we are justified by faith not works.
However, if we have experienced the enormity of God’s love for us, and been filled with the Spirit, then how can we not be doers of the word? People who act? It is in the outward working of our discipleship that not only we, but the world is transformed. The Reading concluded with: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world”
Well I’m not sure we can ever hope be unstained by the world, we are after all creatures of physicality, and our place is in this world which God has created and in which we are called to be Christ’s disciples.
But we can ask the fundamental question – who are the people in distress in our time and place that we are called to care for?
- The people of Haiti, and of Afghanistan. Natural and manmade disasters.
- Those forced to use food banks, forced to beg, or who have no alternative but to sell their bodies to feed their families?
- Those who fear to go out because of compromised immune systems and the stupidity of vaccine deniers?
- Those who are racially, or sexually or domestically abused?
We can continue to add to the list. And we should also add – Creation, which groans and longs for liberty in the midst of this climate crises.
We start with holding people, places and problems in prayer. But that is only the start. God does not wave a magic wand and make things better, instead God asks of us – so what will you do to show that you care? How will you follow Christ in these situations?
Care is a word that needs to work hard. It can have an immediacy and an intimacy about it. It is of the moment, about relief of symptoms, triage and first aid. But it goes beyond that. If we truly care, if we really love, then we don’t just want to offer relief but go to the heart of the problem – why are people suffering in the first place? What injustices need to be righted? How do we make it possible for those in need to speak for themselves, to empower themselves?
How we stop being like the Pharisees and become part of the solution instead? Amen.
Prayers of thanksgiving
We take time to call to mind those people and events that we are thankful for…
For the creative ways we have found to worship during the pandemic
Thanks be to God
For the love and support of family and friends
Thanks be to God
For all God’s rainbow people, LGBT+ and straight.
Thanks be to God. Amen
Prayers of intercession
We take time to call to mind the places and people that need our prayers….
For all in authority
That they may seek justice
For all in need
That they may know hope and healing
For the Church
That it may proclaim the Gospel in word and deed.
That we may have strength to follow Christ
For all who have died in the faith
That we may honour their witness. Amen
The Lord’s Prayer (Jim Cotter ©Cairns Publications)
Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker.
Source of all that is and that shall be.
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo
through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed
by all peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done
by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever. Amen.
Prayer of dedication
Loving God we offer our gifts to you.
Take what we offer for the glory of your Kingdom.
And transform us to be beacons of your love and mercy in this world, though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.